The Seattle Mariners continued their series of offseason Zoom press conferences on Wednesday, this time with a minor league focus. The session began with Andy McKay, the team’s Director of Player Development, who was followed by prospects Logan Gilbert, Emerson Hancock, and Jarred Kelenic.
McKay kicked things off with an opening statement about the coaching shakeup in the minor league ranks. Ryan Divish has the whole thing here, with the biggest news probably being Kristopher Negrón taking over as Rainiers’ manager just two years after retiring as an MLB player. 2020 Mariner first base coach Joe Thurston will become the hitting coach at Double-A, and another former Mariner will handle the hitting coach duties at Single-A.
Here's the Mariners player development staff for 2021. I like Kris Negron a lot and he's got a bright future. But the Mariners hosed Daren Brown pic.twitter.com/GloPL5TgnY— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) January 27, 2021
Once media queries began, McKay fielded questions about what the various minor league seasons will look like as the pandemic continues raging on. Seated in a cavernous den of books, and with the help of a ring light, McKay said the Mariners don’t have a lot of information right now about the schedule or structure of the minor leagues.
“Right now, we’re assuming that we’re going to have Major League Spring Training as scheduled,” McKay said. “When that is over, we’ll begin Minor League Spring Training,” noting that will probably bleed into the month of May. McKay also said he doesn’t currently have any information about the COVID protocols that will be put in place. He did say that he is going to operate as though things are business as usual.
“I plan on being in Peoria on February 15th, and I’ll probably be there for a while.”
McKay identified Joe Rizzo, Wyatt Mills, and Milkar Perez as players who stood out in the team’s Instructional League, saying that both Rizzo and Mills looked “better than [they’ve] ever been as a Mariner”. As for the headliners, McKay said that makeup is both Julio Rodríguez and Jarred Kelenic’s carrying tool, baseball speak for “these are good dudes”. With Kelenic’s famous work ethic, McKay admitted the team has never had to worry about him potentially taking his foot off the gas, even when a pandemic would have made it totally understandable to do so.
As for where Kelenic will start the season, McKay said Double-A, Triple-A, and MLB are all in play. Citing both Julio and Jarred’s immense confidence, McKay mentioned how the inevitable failure of baseball is not something he thinks will derail either of them, before noting that Rodríguez’s confidence has manifested in the belief that he can win a Gold Glove.
While McKay’s availability was the longest of anyone on the Zoom call, he spent a lot of time saying that he, for obvious reasons, does not have a lot of answers right now. Handling the 2021 draft class will be tough, he allowed, as there are “too many variables” born out of the pandemic and subsequent minor league re-shuffling. High school selections will report to Peoria, while college prospects could either go there or Modesto now that Everett has shifted up to the High-A level.
Addressing the lack of a season for several of the Mariners’ top prospects, McKay assured that the impact of that will be less than people think. He specifically went to a story about Noelvi Marte, one of the players who was robbed of a proper development season.
McKay was coaching third base during an intrasquad game. Dylan Moore was there on a rehab assignment, and after sliding into third base, the Mariners’ utility player reportedly gushed about how much better Marte looked and the strides he’s made as a shortstop since summer camp. Hopefully fans, coaches, and talent evaluators can see Marte’s mettle get tested against top prospects from other minor league teams rather than just against the Mariners’ group of rugrats.
Logan Gilbert and Emerson Hancock
Two of the team’s best and brightest pitching prospects stepped up to the microphone next, each chatting for about ten minutes. Gilbert spoke extensively about his secondary pitches, while Hancock definitely pleased a particular subset of Mariner fans and staff by talking about the analytics he pored over this offseason.
“We came up with a plan with the coaches to use the analytics on the pitches I already have to try and make them better,” Hancock said. “We’re trying to manipulate the fastball spin a little bit, make the curveball a little tighter, those are just the little things we had from my limited innings. We’ve found ways to get better and improve. The biggest thing was just finding a new routine, that’s going to be a good foundation for me.”
“I was working on my changeup a lot,” Gilbert remembered from his time at the alternate site in Tacoma. “We were facing our own teammates over and over again, so at some point I had to figure out different ways to attack people or get them out. Of course, in the Major Leagues, when you’re playing against your own division so many times, you’re going to be facing the same batters and having to figure out new ways to get them out. I think that was a good experience.”
Gilbert, by his own account, feels really comfortable with all four of his pitches, enough to start scaling back his fastball usage to about 60 percent. He threw in the requisite statement about trying to help the Mariners win whenever he gets a shot and pointed to Marco Gonzales as an example of how to be consistent, something he said is the main thing he needs to improve upon in order to reach the highest level. With much of the competition element removed from his 2020, Gilbert has been able to focus mainly on development. He’s still doing this – at a place called the Florida Baseball Ranch – with all intentions of getting after it in February when team activities can hopefully begin again.
Hancock, the Mariners’ first-round pick in the 2020 draft, also spoke openly and glowingly about his preparation. This is the first time in Hancock’s life that baseball has been the only focus. He said that the amount of work a person can put in with school out of the way is “eye-opening”. The former Georgia Bulldog praised the Mariners’ high-performance work and eased any tension about his shoulder injury by emphasizing that he’s fully healthy.
The afternoon ended with Jarred Kelenic, never one to mince words. He said his time at the alternate site in Tacoma, where he watched multiple people not named Jarred Kelenic constantly move up and down from the big-league team, was “definitely frustrating”. His unquestioned goal (and likely expectation) for 2021 is to make his MLB debut. When a Twitch user chimed in with a question about which MLB stadium he’s most excited to play in, Kelenic said “Well, hopefully I get called up”, putting an extra dollop of sauce on that get. Does he have any concerns about the Mariners playing service time games?
“Umm,” Kelenic began before a lengthy pause. “I am just going to go out and play as hard as I can. That’s out of my control. Whatever happens, happens. I know that’s a cliché answer.”
The trademark Kelenic swagger bubbled up several more times, particularly when he called the at-bats he got in summer camp against MLB pitchers “re-assuring”.
“If you were to ask me last year if I felt ready to be in the big leagues, I would have told you yes,” said Baseball America’s fourth-ranked prospect. “But I would have told you I was ready two years ago. This year’s the same mindset, just going in and competing as much as I can, hopefully I can get a roster spot and help the team win.”
Seeing big-league pitching only confirmed for Kelenic that he’s ready for the show, while he still acknowledged the challenges of 2020 that came from seeing the same pitchers over and over again. As for his offseason program in Wisconsin, the 21-year-old was extremely straightforward.
“I can tell you that I’m super, super strong.”